Defensiveness as a Theological Problem for Friends

I want to start this pop-up blog by thinking through what I think is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for progressive Christians, particularly Quakers: namely, a self-image as being “the good guys”, which paradoxically can get in the way of acting justly or Christ-like.

I see it from time to time on Reddit or Twitter, when someone calls out Quakers for racism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. And my first reaction, I’ll admit, is to get defensive: Not all Quakers are like that! Which is not anymore a persuasive form of response than it was when #NotAllMen was trending three or four years ago. Protesting that, for example, liberal Quakers are better at accepting queer people than evangelical Quakers is one of those things that might be tempting to say, but has the effect of snubbing the person calling attention to the problem at hand. Even if it’s true in a broad sense, it’s not really relevant here. If you lead with that response, you may end up proving the critics’ point that, for many Quakers, the image of being a progressive faith is more important than actually doing the work of making queer people (and people of color) feel welcome in the faith.

Which brings me to what I think is the theological heart of the matter: the defensiveness that I and other Quakers feel when we get called out like this is a sign that our relationship to Quakerism—by which I mean the general figure that Quakerism cuts through history that is attractive to so many—is really dysfunctional. Rather than treating Quakerism as a gift from God to be shared, we treat it as a possession to be protected. Thus, when it is pointed out that Quakers often are not as good as we think we are, we get defensive: we try to add nuance; we offer contrary examples; we wonder what the other side of the story is.

I say this is a theological matter because I believe this kind of defensiveness is rooted in our fear of death. As Richard Beck writes in The Slavery of Death, many of the problems of our world, particularly in the affluent parts of the world, are based in what is called neurotic death anxiety: concerns about status, being loved, being seen as a good person, etc.

Religion, of course, is one of the premier vehicles for these self-esteem projects. Being Christian or Muslim, to say nothing of being Catholic or Quaker, often is not much different, psychologically speaking, from being an American or a Mexican, a Cubs fan or a Nats fan. It gives us a tribe and a sense of purpose—something, we hope, more solid than the general decay we see around us.

Thus, when one’s religion comes under criticism, it provokes a defensive, sometimes violent response, because to acknowledge the criticism is, in a sense, a kind of death. So long as that’s the case, our actions will always be compromised; we won’t be able to answer the criticism fairly or with love for the person making it.

How, then, do we escape this situation? Beck posits the cultivation of an eccentric identity, in which one’s ultimate source of meaning is located outside oneself, even outside institutions and ideologies, and in God alone. In the Christian imagination, this would be called dying to oneself and being reborn in Christ; in more specifically Quaker language, this would be called awakening to the Light within. To the extent that the Quaker way of doing things is of any worth, it is in encouraging the development of that eccentric identity that lets God’s love shine through.

The important thing to remember, though, is that nothing about Quaker process—or any other institution, for that matter—guarantees this will happen. An “affirming” church can follow all the steps of Quaker business method, but if God’s love is not the driving motor, it can end up with very little “affirmation” of actual queer people and actual people of color.

Today, many American Quakers still do not affirm queer identities, and even many of those who do don’t have the sense of urgency about it that it deserves. (Similarly, most Quakers are at least nominally committed to racial equality, but may be reluctant to follow that commitment if it means decentering white perspectives—and the Society of Friends in America is a mostly white church.) The question of who belongs in the church, which has always been of central importance, is what’s at stake here, and unfortunately, it is often being answered in ways that are hurtful and alienating—the opposite of what the gospel promises. And the question of the usefulness of the Quaker way of doing things is really no different than that broader question. In both, after all, we have to ask ourselves: Do we love God with our whole selves, and do we love our neighbor as ourselves? Let’s not make this complicated.

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